Looking upwards through a trampoline mesh, two colourfully dressed figures are outlined like strange birds against a blue sky

review, article

Tanzwerkstatt Europa 2022: gestures from the zeitgeist

Read Icon Read
Time Icon Pink 14 min
Roza Moshtaghi Bouncing Narratives. Photo © Josh Lake/Ben Pender
S pink identity

Munich’s long-running, many-stranded Tanzwerkstatt Europa serves as a quality sample of what’s in the air of current contemporary dance

It is rare for a dance festival to carry a name that matches its essence to the same degree as Tanzwerkstatt Europa. This Munich-based workshop-festival was founded in 1991 by dance enthusiast and programmer Walter Heun and by the production company Joint Adventures. Over more than thirty years Tanzwerkstatt Europa has grown to become the largest and by far the oldest contemporary dance event in southern Germany and has attracted dance professionals and choreographers from across the globe along with a loyal Munich public. This year, Tanzwerkstatt Europa has yet again walked along two parallel, yet intertwined paths: a three-week programme of lectures, classes and workshops for dance professionals and performers; and a two-week melting pot of performances, film screenings, discussions and even picnics, open to all.

Heun fittingly describes Tanzwerkstatt Europa as ‘a workshop of new ideas and aesthetics in contemporary dance’. So it is difficult to boil down the festival’s programming choices to a single idea or slogan, unlike some other dance festivals. Heun says that he seeks quality of artistic and aesthetic material first and foremost; whether or not a particular artist pursues specific political agendas or tunes into socially charged topics has never been a selection criterion as such. Each year, Heun strives to devise a patchwork programme of ‘what’s in the air in the young contemporary dance scene’. The 2022 edition of Tanzwerkstatt Europa hosted by Muffathalle and Schwere Reiter is no exception. Despite a great variety of dance techniques, what all the festival shows have in common is the rigour of even the slightest movement and the utmost precision of each gesture.

‘recommend this show to all your friends…’ Alexander Vantournhout’s Through the Grapevine

One of the most somatically complex shows of the festival fortnight, Alexander Vantournhout’s Through the Grapevine, epitomises this approach and amazes by the virtuosity and ingenuity of its dance vocabulary. When two slender dancers (Vantournhout himself and Axel Guérin) enter the stage and exchange candid stares, they immediately start comparing their willowy limbs, measuring their armspans and height – to rare giggles from the audience. This prologue sets forth the ambiguity of their partnership on stage: loyal and dependent on one another, yet competing and teasing at times.

Their ensuing skin-to-skin dance routine is staggering. Guérin and Vantournhout intertwine their arms and legs in loose-jointed deadlocks, block their torsos in impossible equilibriums, hurtle into each other’s arms, and knot their legs and arms to form an eerie and symmetrical two-backed creature. The growing intensity of this sweaty exploration of balance and strength only highlights the performers’ sportsmanlike attitude, while they nudge and cheer each other into yet another jaw-dropping twist. Their dedication and mastery are off the scale and are paid back by an explosive ovation. While the dancers’ motives and the show’s overall ambitions remain vague, Through the Grapevine has a grip strength of such force that you want to recommend this show to all your friends as a mighty introduction to what contemporary dance and ‘nouveau cirque’ are capable of.

Like many other artists, Vantournhout was invited to Tanzwerkstatt Europa not only as a dance maker but also as a teacher. His dance class was illustrative of the approach in Through the Grapevine and dwelt upon the diverse somatic potentialities of partnering on stage: leaning on and controlling each other, leading and being led, depending on and challenging the partner, teasing and being teased. Vantournhout’s students were invited to share their takeaways and insights in front of their peers during the festival’s final evening.

Four women in white, widely spaced, two standing and two crouched, each facing different directions as if all are isolated beings on the mossy floor and shadowy background
Earths, by Louise Vanneste. Photo © Caroline Lessire

Just as an unrooted tree becomes mere wood, a choreographed gesture isolated from its source, from its ‘why’ and from its driving force, often trades off its sense against its beauty, and risks turning into artifice. In Earths, Louise Vanneste emphatically proves the importance of tuning into the very essence of movement. But even before the movement comes the scent. The scent of moss carpeting the stage is intense, and it immediately carries me back to the most soothing childhood memories: mushroom hunting in the forest in late autumn, bike rides through humid birch groves. When the four dancers appear on stage, all clad in white, my perception has already definitely changed.

What ensues can be best described as a mental journey. Movements start at fingertips: first, gentle flutters, then sudden twists and hardly perceptible bends and shivers. The piece unfolds through a series of repetitive gestures, tilts, sweeps and curves, by which the dancers scan and gauge the space and each other, only seldom abandoning their initial postures. When they coalesce and break apart, Arnaud Gernier’s delicate light occasionally warms up the space and highlights the irregular contours of the moss chunks. Not the faintest stir escapes my attention – each quiver seems to come from deep within, as if the dancers inhale and exhale by moving. Their unalloyed attention to the space surrounding them makes me recall the words of French theatre director Claude Régy who said: ‘When a person on stage moves their little finger, everyone and everything in the space should become aware of this movement and respond to it.’ In Earths the dancers tune into the ecosystem and the energy flows, and progressively abandon their human agency and willpower to form an uncanny community with the moss-covered clearing. And there comes the point in the piece when movement ultimately regains its core function and faculty – that of communication and language yet to fathom or decipher.

Isabelle Schad’s trilogy FUR, Turning Solo 2, Rotations also operates on the terrain of attentiveness to gesture and careful yet rather detached choreography. Schad seems to deliberately avoid any contextualisation, and commits to showing the dancers as they are in a series of portraits. This selection of two short solos and one duo, all devised during the successive lockdowns, evoke a flurry of associations. In FUR, Aya Toraiwa executes a startling solo in which her knee-length hair is by turns an extension of her body, a veil, and a shroud. Turning Solo 2 is a meditative reflection on whirling which sends two dancers in a sombre spinning ritual. But Schad’s methodical approach to movement reaches its emotional heights in Rotations. Alone on stage and back against the wall, Claudia Tomasi starts her solo with quick fluttering arm movements in front of her plexus. Soon, springy rhythm gains her entire body, her head swings, her hands frenetically cut the shaft of light above her head drawing evanescent golden traces. As the tempo intensifies, Tomasi manages to accomplish a rare feat – transform cold method into a transcendent moment of pure dance glory.

Subtle subversions: Arrangement by Joe Moran

Theatre and dance stages have always been full of flat and overblown stereotypes of tough and aggressive masculinity. In a revival of his 2014 work Arrangement, British-Irish choreographer Joe Moran tends to reconfigure wonted narratives around toxic male expression and challenge the objectification of men in contemporary dance. By manoeuvring social gestures and carefully embedding them into his rough and playful dance vocabulary, Moran complicates the habitual discourse and queers the straight lines. It would have been a too-easy and straightforward trick to leap to another extreme of the gender binary and paint male frailty and feminine traits in thick strokes. Rather, Moran subtly subverts iconic male rituals. A rugby scrummage becomes a slow melée tinted with tenderness and acceptance of failure; a street fight morphs into a quirky display of embarrassment and angst; and a victory celebration finishes in a graceful bras en couronne.

Halfway through the show, all six dancers unexpectedly open up to questions from the audience. We thus learn about their favourite TV show (‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’), how they describe themselves (sexy, magical and energetic), whether they do Scottish folk dance (No), or whether they want to go and take a shower (a firm ‘Yes’). Instead of reinforcing the binaries, Moran sows doubt and instils ambiguity in a funny and smart feat that reminds us that even a simple gesture cannot lend itself to a straightforward interpretation.

Bespactacled man in pirate hat holds up a blank card from a row of blank cards dealt on the table before him
Dealing out and reading out cards… Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion’s Rewriting. Photo © Hugo Glendinning

One of the recurring motives of any dance festival remains a reflection on the act of performing in front of the audience, its elusive contractuality, its hidden codes and cues. When asked about current dance trends, Heun also highlighted the recent resurgence of ‘fourth-wall shows’ in which dancemakers fearlessly attack the thin symbolic screen separating the stage from the viewer. There can hardly be a better example of this specific genre than the double bill Rewriting and Science Fiction by British choreographer Jonathan Burrows and his long-standing collaborator and composer Matteo Fargion. In Rewriting, Burrows deals out and reads out index cards containing random quotes from his well-known A Choreographer’s Handbook. His tongue-in-cheek delivery is complemented by repetitive tinny tones that Fargion playfully extracts from his miniature Casio keyboard. Hardly leaving his chair, Burrows employs an increasingly elaborate series of hand gestures – he flips and flicks the cards, brandishes them at arm’s length like a conjurer setting up a card trick. His seated armography is startling from the first finger tap to the very last arm sweep. Aphorisms read out during this odd solitaire are by turns thoughtful and banal, but all can be easily tagged as truisms: ‘Do whatever you need to do’, ‘Complete and utter failure is always an option’, ‘Most people prefer to dance than to watch other people dance’.

If in Rewriting Burrows and Fargion’s waggish acting and slick dramaturgy save the show from veering towards highbrow pretentiousness, Science Fiction tests audience expectations with a handful of sheer self-indulgence. Both standing behind synths, Burrows and Fargion in turn build up a simple one-handed tune by adding extra notes, layers and occasional snare drum beats. The pair frequently describe their approach to performance art as based on the rules of musical composition. In Science Fiction however, their suite quickly loses its grip and sounds like a friendly conversation between two old pals who can hardly hide their indifference to the outer world (the latter paying back by a series of walk-outs).

Ultimately, this uncanny double bill was a welcome and witty break in the otherwise movement-based festival programme, and left me musing about the limits of post-dramatic trends questioning the artist-audience contract. When does the tension between our expectations and on-stage delivery break? And where lies the line between smart mise en abyme and hermetic arrogance?

Blue Quote Mark

A groovy psychology lecture illustrated by top-notch Travolta-inspired moves

Blue Quote Mark

Traditionally, all editions of Tanzwerkstatt Europa feature a symposium, a day-long event full of lectures by dance makers and theorists, performances of shorter format, workshops and discussions. This year, it took the form of an ‘artistic-theoretical experience course’ housed on the lush grassfields of ‘Fluffy Grounds’, a disused open-air bath facility. Its sprawling programme (teasingly entitled ‘And the beat goes on…’) included free tai chi and yoga workshops, art installations, lectures and performances. A ‘lecture tent’ housed Dr Eike Wittrock’s short retrospective of drag shows and queer performance history, Alexandra Baybutt’s talk about somatic practices in everyday life and, most notably, a groovy lecture by psychologist Peter ‘Dr Dance’ Lovatt, during which he not only updated the audience on the positive influence of dance on the human brain and hormonal balance, but also aptly illustrated his findings by top-notch Travolta-inspired moves and jovial disco sequences.

The performative part of the afternoon turned out to be just as inspiring. Joe Moran presented Thirst, a short duo which delves into notions of power dynamics, dominance and submission. Louise Vanneste danced a solo version of One Foray, a dazzling ‘journey through an imaginary landscape’ inspired by Michel Tournier’s novel relating his version of Robinson Crusoe’s shipwreck. Always with her back to the audience, Vanneste slowly drifts through a strand of sand endlessly bending and warping in sweeping meanders, as if she is translating Tournier’s words by and into her body – a soundscape and an accompaniment of her solemn progression. Vanneste’s fluid solo quickly created an eerie powerfield shielding the viewers from the outside hubbub – a gentle mental bubble that I had a hard time leaving.

A rich and carefully calculated oscillation: Roza Moshtaghi’s Bouncing Narratives

The staple of the afternoon symposium, and arguably of the whole festival, was Roza Moshtaghi’s performative art installation Bouncing Narratives. This work had been selected as part of Aerowaves’ Twenty20, but because of covid-related travel restrictions, has hardly been ever shown outside the Nordic countries. Spectators are invited to enter into a scarcely decorated freight container with a trampoline as its roof, and squat on the pillows that upholster its steel interior. A thick trampoline mesh grids the sunlit sky. Two dancers clad in brightly coloured bodysuits step on the trampoline and start to bounce, backs upright and facing each other, to Lykourgos Porfyris’s diffused rhythm. Animated by subtle pace shifts, their bouncing morphs into a subdued confrontation, a series of dramatic collapses and frenzied bends, a joyful hug and a mesmerising final embrace under a large veil covering their heads.

This rich and carefully calculated oscillation would have never reached its hypnotising effect had Moshtaghi not modified the viewer’s gaze. We are forced to look upwards, our view is obstructed by the regular web of the trampoline that responds to each bounce by a deep menacing sag. Feet appear larger than hands, faces less visible than shoe soles; the body height is abolished and even its shape becomes a matter of doubt. Moshtaghi skilfully stirs our perception to render us vulnerable and alert and let her bouncing narratives cut through us with the efficiency of a hot butter knife. And just as a greater truth always lies beyond our understanding, Moshtaghi’s piece escapes literal interpretation and navigates in the tension between what we perceive and what we don’t.

Blue Quote Mark

This dance workshop-festival is a workshop for its audience – training grounds for their eyes and ears

Blue Quote Mark

One single thought kept buzzing in my head after a busy afternoon in ‘Fluffy Grounds’. While I was still incapable of fully grasping the zeitgeist of Tanzwerkstatt Europa, its ‘workshop’ spirit has suddenly become crystal-clear. By putting together works of varying ambitions and concepts but of unquestionable quality, this dance workshop-festival has also become a workshop for its audience – training grounds for their eyes and ears and a laboratory in which they reconsider their presumptions and challenge their taste. The 2022 edition of Tanzwerkstatt Europa has also emphatically proved the conceptual versatility of choreographed gesture. Even stripped from theoretically complex ambitions, it can become a screen on which the spectators can project their own memories, emotions and worries. And when they will leave the theatre and when everyday life will regain its frenzied pace, they will recognise its beauty everywhere: disturbing and evocative, yet strangely familiar. 

Location Icon
02–12.08.22 Munich, Germany
Publication Icon


Evgeny Borisenko’s trip was provided by Tanzwerkstatt Europa

You may also like...